National

‘May rent. June rent. Late fees. Penalties.’

Tusdae Barr, on being evicted from her home during the coronavirus crisis
HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 13: Tusdae Barr poses for a portrait at a friend’s home in Houston, Texas on August 13, 2020. (Photo by Mark Felix for The Washington Post)

There’s no room for disbelief in my position. I’ve had other people tell me: “Really? They’re evicting you during a pandemic? That’s crazy.” I don’t know. Maybe it is. I haven’t had time to sit and feel sorry. First I was fighting in court to keep the apartment, and then I was trying to get my things out of there before the landlord padlocked the doors. It was one big scramble. Where can I find a moving truck? How am I going to pay for storage? Who’s watching the baby? Where can we lay our heads? Which motels are safe and which ones are covered in virus?

About this series
Voices from the Pandemic is an oral history of covid-19 and those affected.

It’s a new problem every day, and that’s how it’s been for the last five months. I don’t know what devil designed this maze, but congratulations. I’ve been running in circles and there’s no way out.

The thing is, we were doing pretty great right up until March, when the virus hit Houston. Well — maybe not great. I’ve had struggles in my life. This isn’t a fairy tale. But we were doing okay. We were making it. How about that? My daughter and my grandbaby were living with me, and my son and his family had their own place in the same apartment complex. I had a one-bedroom on the fourth floor. We had air mattresses in there, but we made it up really nice. It was $900 a month and we were paying it. All of us had jobs. The whole family was together. It was more than enough.

The layoffs started happening one after another when the city shut down. My son got sent home from his store. My boyfriend did construction, and that dried up. I do office work for a temp agency, and they had nowhere left to send me. We put together all of our savings to pay the rent in March. The stimulus money helped cover most of April. I donated plasma for twenty-five bucks. I cleaned an old friend’s apartment for twenty. I fixed up people’s hair for whatever they could give me, but it was never enough. May rent. June rent. Late fees. Penalties. The hole kept getting bigger. Phone bills. Electric. Trash. Insurance. Water. We were stacking up bills and putting off our problems, and we knew it was only a matter of time. Houston had an eviction ban for those first few months, but that didn’t mean they stopped charging us. The landlord kept knocking on our door, but all we had for him was more apologies. The court sent a letter in July telling us we needed to pay $3,000 or we would be evicted, and that’s when everything started to spiral.

Stress has a way of bringing out the true version of people. I’ve had stress my whole life, so I guess you could say I’m used to it. I had my son when I was 15, and my mom let me learn the hard way. We bounced around the motels and rode the bus to hide from the elements. I had my tearful times and my rages, but then I decided to put it in God’s hands. Now I pray and I let it go. I look hard for the small miracles that are coming my way. That’s how I handle it. But my boyfriend, he started swallowing that stress and holding it down inside. He got angry. It brought out an ugliness in him, and he took it out on me. He popped up behind me one day in the apartment and assaulted me. He bruised my wrists. He put a butcher knife to me. He chased me over to Walgreens and attacked me in front of the store. The police came and arrested him, and he gave one of the police officers a black eye.

He’s in jail now, and that’s a good thing. He did what he did, and I don’t want to give him excuses. But there’s a part of me that knows where it was coming from. We were about a week away from getting evicted at that point. He still couldn’t find work. My unemployment payments were delayed. The county’s emergency relief fund had run out of money. The court wasn’t budging.

I went to court on my own to appeal the eviction, and they gave me seven days to come up with $900. I think that was their version of a good deal, but I had nothing. They might as well have asked me for a million. My son said we could come stay with him, but with his kids living in that apartment, there wasn’t any room. My daughter is 18, and to me that’s still a kid, and she was worried about the baby. I told her: “It’s all right. God makes a way.” I printed up fliers explaining our situation, and I walked around for a while to the charities and the churches. I came up with a few hundred. Then I got home one day and the constable had put a sign on my door. “You have 24 hours to vacate. Be out by 9 tomorrow.”

Tusdae Barr, 40, at a friend’s home in Houston on Aug. 13. (Photos by Mark Felix for The Washington Post)

It helps me to focus on the good things. What are the good things? The U-Haul place opened at 7 in the morning, and that was lucky, because some mornings they open at 9. The nice lady at the counter listened to my story and rented me the truck without asking for my driver’s license, and thank God, because I didn’t have one. I needed help moving my furniture down from the fourth floor, and I just happened to see one of my son’s friends sitting outside a convenience store, and he agreed to help us even though I couldn’t pay him. It started to rain, and the constable isn’t allowed to evict in the rain or the snow, so that bought me a little more time. We were able to move out the table and the couch that my aunt blessed me with, and those are two of my most prized possessions. I was driving the U-Haul over by the cheap motels, trying to find a place that was clean enough and might cut us a deal, and I was starting to break down when this lady saw me. It was already getting dark at that point. She came over and asked how I was doing, and then she paid for two nights at the Residence Inn. That place was so beautiful. It had a kitchen and a living room with an extra bed. I got in the shower and I just cried. I told my daughter: “Let this be the memory of today. Hold onto this gratitude.”

I went back to the apartment early the next morning to get the rest of my stuff, but they’d already changed the locks. A lot of things were still left in there: my good pots, baby clothes, a vacuum cleaner. It’s nothing we needed to survive. My uncle was a pastor, and he worked side by side with Martin Luther King, so I go back to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. “Don’t look back. Don’t turn into that pillar of salt. Keep on moving forward.”

We bounced around the motels for a week, and now we’re couch surfing. I’m at my aunt’s place, and my daughter and her baby are with a friend. It’s short term, and we’re probably wearing out our welcomes. My son sent me a message the other day to let me know that he’s getting evicted now, too. He’s a stocker at Walmart, but they cut back his hours. He said: “Mom, it’s impossible. I give up.” He hasn’t answered his phone for a few days, so I’m not sure if he found a place to sleep or what. I keep calling him, but I don’t know what to say. I should be helping him somehow, but I’ve got nothing to offer.

I’m trying to come up with a plan. I need to get us back together. I figure it’s going to take at least $3,500 to rent another place, because landlords want double deposits and extra fees once you have that recent eviction on your record. I’ve been riding the bus and applying for jobs at the fast-food places around town. If you want to find work during covid, you look for the drive-throughs. Those are the only places hiring, and I’m not too proud. I’ve done Burger King, Popeyes, McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A. I’d wear a chicken suit and dance in the street if they paid me fifteen an hour.

It’s been strange, going on these interviews. I’m trying to present myself like I’ve got it all together, when things are falling apart. I force myself to act cheerful. I know how to put on that good face. I used to work for a nonprofit, and I’d get dressed up for these big functions and sit at a table with millionaires. They would ask for my opinion or invite me to their homes for lunch, and I’d act like I was one of them. I’d look at their lifestyle and think: “Hey, one day that could be me.” But I’m 40 now, and the distance between that world and mine is still getting bigger. It’s harder to put on that face. It’s harder to pretend. The stock market is still going up and up, right? Meanwhile, everybody I know is out of a job. Everybody is behind on the rent. Most of us are becoming homeless. I’m worth nothing on paper, so who’s going to rent to me? I’m a second-chance case. I’ve got no home address, no employer, no car, no credit cards, nothing in savings.

I can go over a million reasons why, but what does it matter? I’ve never found a landlord that likes to hear excuses. Sooner or later, the bill always comes due, and somebody has to pay.

eli.saslow@washpost.com

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